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Best Match-Play Holes

18 of the best match-play holes in the world, and what makes them so great

By: Geoff Shackelford

Par 4s

Bandon Trails; Bandon, Ore.
14th hole, 325 yards

Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s fiercely debated two-shotter is our only 21st-century entry. The elevated tee shot plays to a wide, severely left-to-right sloping fairway. Play safely right and birdie is out of the equation. Reward awaits those who shorten the approach and play left to the tiny skyline green, which Coore was prepared to rebuild. But owner Mike Keiser disagreed. “It’s my favorite hole,” he said.

The Belfry (Brabazon); Sutton Coldfield, England
10th hole, 311 yards

At the 1985 Ryder Cup, captain Lee Trevino ordered his players to lay up instead of going for the boomerang-shaped green guarded by trees and a creek. The Americans bickered over the strategy and lost the Matches. The quarrelling—then and since—proves that this hole is a match-play gem.

The Country Club (Composite); Brookline, Mass.
4th hole, 338 yards

Driveable with a tiny green hidden over a small hill, the percentage play is to lay up to the generous fairway and wedge on. But for most, the temptation is just too great to drive near the putting surface because the hole looks so inviting.

The Course at Yale; New Haven, Conn.
4th hole, 437 yards

C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor blended the “Cape” and “Road” holes, providing a tempting (and ill-advised) option of driving over the inlet and shortening the approach. Trees left add to the trouble, but flirting with them opens a nice view to the green. The second shot was even more harrowing before the greenside “Road” hole bunker’s renovation.

National Golf Links of America, Southampton, N.Y.
17th hole, 460 yards

“Alps” features an angled bunker off the tee that rewards a drive down the right. Driving too safely left leaves an all but impossible approach to a green behind a hill. No matter the angle, the approach shot is blind, adding excitement to the stroll to the green.

Pine Valley Golf Club; Pine Valley, N.J.
13th hole, 486 yards

Along with the pine barrens and trees, the heroic second shot to the peninsula-perched green makes this ideal for matches. There is the option to go directly at the hole, try a right-to-left run up shot, or play well out to the right and pitch on to the undulating putting surface. Each option has risk, and so much depends on what your opponent does.

Riviera Country Club; Pacific Palisades, Calif.
10th hole, 311 yards

An iron off the tee rarely makes worse than par, yet the hole still lures pros into going for the well bunkered green, an approach that brings double bogey into play. As Jim Murray wrote, “This is a shameless little harlot that just sits there at the end of the bar in her mesh stockings and miniskirt and winks at you.”

Royal Melbourne Golf Club (West); Melbourne, Australia
10th hole, 305 yards

For decades this hole has tempted good players to do unwise things, always the mark of a great match-play hole. A dogleg left that plays to a tiny green set atop a hill, with severe penalty awaiting both long and short of the putting surface. Lay up and face an obstructed view. Go for the green and bring trouble into play.Par 5s

Augusta National Golf Club; Augusta, Ga.
13th hole, 510 yards

A classic dogleg around Rae’s Creek that continues to confound the best players in the world because they know that a cautious, sound play will rarely make worse than par (and often lead to birdie). Yet, the allure of an eagle three is often too good to pass up, no matter what it introduces into the equation.

Bethpage State Park (Black); Farmingdale, N.Y.
4th hole, 517 yards

A.W. Tillinghast loved a mid-hole forced carry designed to put pressure on the tee shot, especially in match-play situations that were often prevalent in his thinking. He created the midway “Sahara” swarm of bunkers on most of his courses, but none is more dramatic and strategic as the set here. Pulling off the carry and positioning the second shot properly make birdie possible on the flattish green.

Carnoustie Golf Links (Championship); Carnoustie, Scotland
6th hole, 520 yards

A boundary fence runs the length of the hole to catch hooked drives while two center-line bunkers force a tee-shot decision: Play left and open up the best approach angle to a well bunkered green, or play right, bring “Jockie’s Burn” into play, and eliminate eagle chances. Hogan played this hole cautiously during his 1953 British Open win, but in match play he might have approached it differently.

Pebble Beach Golf Links; Pebble Beach, Calif.
18th hole, 543 yards

A hole that has improved with technology advancements because it is now a reachable par 5 in the vein of Augusta National’s 13th. As with any standout match-play arena, anything can happen here, with the Pacific Ocean looming left, out of bounds right, and a deep fronting bunker that makes even a wedge approach tricky.

Cypress Point’s wondrous 16th, playing 233 yards over the Pacific Ocean, is undoubtedly a world-class match-play hole. But maybe not for the reason you think.

The genuine fun stems from an option to play safely toward an inviting fairway short and left of the green. That sanctuary of turf creates a strategic dilemma of whether to lay up or go for the green, especially if you’re 2 up with three to go.

Without the safe option, the beautiful 16th merely becomes a contest of who can make the carry. Instead, the hole offers tantalizing options that are heightened during the game’s version of mini-warfare: match play.

Former amateur great and architect Max Behr once wrote that the finest match-play design asks the golfer “to assume immediate risks if he wishes to rid himself of future liabilities.” If the architect presents mostly risk and little reward, a match becomes a sheer physical contest. The best match-play holes fall into par’s gray area by introducing excruciating decisions.

And what is the ultimate sign of an elite match-play hole? When having the honor on the tee is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, when successful negotiation of the options places the opponent at a disadvantage even before he pulls a club. A curse, when the hole’s choices so entice and torture that the player with the honor wishes it were not his turn.

Now, 18 of these holes might drive a golfer batty. However, they would make one awesome Ryder Cup course, providing suspense, strategy, physical challenge and dramatic reversal of fortunes on every shot. On the next few pages, we offer such a layout: the 18 best match-play holes in the world.Par 3s

Augusta National Golf Club; Augusta, Ga.
12th hole, 155 yards

Every golfer knows the Sunday dilemma here. Play to the center of the green or go for the far-right hole location. But the angled putting surface, swirling winds and knowledge that a tournament-changing birdie is within reach after one good swing conspire to make it the most beguiling par 3 on the planet.

Cypress Point Club; Pebble Beach, Calif.
16th hole, 233 yards

Alister Mackenzie initially envisioned this as one of the world’s great driveable par 4s. Marion Hollins talked him out of it, but the same options that would have made it a fun par 4—drive the green or play safe—also help make it the world’s most famous par 3.

Lahinch Golf Club; Lahinch, Ireland 
5th hole , 154 yards
Totally blind and sandwiched between dunes, how can this possibly be exceptional for match play? Several of the master golf architects actually wrote about the anticipatory thrill of approaching a hidden green to find out who knocked it closest to the hole.

Royal Troon Golf Club (Old); Troon, Scotland
8th hole, 123 yards

The lay-up area—there really is one according to locals most familiar with the world’s most famous short one-shotter—is the front bunker or even in the rugged fescue grasses short of the green. Pin-high misses on the “Postage Stamp” are so wicked that some would prefer to lose the 7th hole just to see what their opponent does first.

TPC Sawgrass (Stadium); Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
17th hole , 137 yards

What options? Either hit the island green or head to the drop area, right? Actually, each of the quadrants on Pete Dye’s artfully designed green has a hole location that dangles just enough risk for the bold player seeking a birdie, along with room for a safe play that leaves a difficult two-putt.

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